I never thought I’d be interested in listening to an Aaron Neville record. Yes, of course he’s done some stellar work with the Neville Brothers, but fellow children of the ’80s, I’m sure you understand — between his gloppy duets with Linda Ronstadt and that horrible, inescapable cover of “Everybody Plays the Fool,” I developed a steely resistance to his fluttery falsetto long ago.
But then Joe Henry went and produced Aaron’s latest record, I Know I’ve Been Changed, and knew I had to hear it. Longtime readers of this space may remember that I’m a big fan of Mr. Henry’s work, and we’ve developed something of a digital acquaintance over the years; he even agreed to write a post looking back at his discography for the old Jefitoblog. Anyway, much as I love Joe Henry’s albums, I might be an even bigger fan of his production, which has colored outstanding recent releases from Mose Allison, Loudon Wainwright III, Allen Toussaint, Bettye Lavette, and more. (For a more in-depth look at Henry’s production resume, read Josh Hurst’s overview here.)
Henry makes a good producer because he has a distinctive style and he knows how to highlight his artists’ strengths — but he’s also a fan at heart who deeply loves music, and that’s what makes his records so frequently remarkable. Allen Toussaint’s piano is a major component of this album, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Henry recruited him specifically because Toussaint produced Neville’s first session, exactly 50 years ago. Appropriately, I Know I’ve Been Changed celebrates this anniversary by taking Neville back to his gospel roots.
This isn’t exactly a departure for Neville — he’s returned his focus to gospel music in recent years, and even during his years as a bestselling pop artist, he never turned away from it entirely — but much of Neville’s work has been marred by a willingness to bend to passing trends, and I Know I’ve Been Changed is an album that stands outside of time. There’s a depth and authority to these performances that Neville wouldn’t have been able to command 50 years ago, but their unfettered honesty is as pure as his earliest work; it’s a “full circle” album in the very best sense.
Recorded over a mere five days, I Know I’ve Been Changed is the sort of warm, earthy gospel record that even an unwashed non-believer like this writer can’t help but feel on an elemental level. Anchored by Toussaint’s piano, laced with Greg Leisz’s Dobro, and sweetened with what Toussaint calls “the velvet voice of Aaron Neville,” it’s all-around excellent — as a gospel album, as a welcome reaffirmation that genuine soul music is still being made, and as a belated apology for those Linda Ronstadt duets.
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One good New Orleans record deserves another, and that’s just what you get with Kermit Ruffins’ Happy Talk, out this week. Taking advantage of the heightened exposure he’s enjoyed thanks to HBO’s TremÁ©, Ruffin has turned in arguably his most instantly addictive — and, perhaps not coincidentally, his most polished — set to date.
The polish might bother some; part of Ruffins’ charm is the warts-and-all aesthetic of his recordings (particularly his live sets), led by his endearingly froggish vocals. (I love, for instance, Ruffins’ cover of “Ooh Child,” but I freely admit it takes a certain kind of person to enjoy it.) But if Happy Talk is a little better-groomed than some of Ruffins’ earlier stuff, it lacks none of the irresistible ebullience that makes his stuff so much fun.
The focus here is big band, given what Ruffins calls his “Kermit swing,” and that’s exactly what the album delivers — you get brass-enhanced covers of numbers both unexpected (Sam Cooke’s “Ain’t That [Good News],” the Spiral Starecase’s “More Today Than Yesterday,” “If I Only Had a Brain”) and traditional (“La Vie En Rose,” “Hey Look Me Over,” “Shine”), as well as a handful of originals. At a dozen tracks and just over an hour in length, it’s a decidedly full-length affair, but Happy Talk never outstays its welcome; in fact, it feels like it goes by in half the time. Having played it maybe three dozen times over the past couple of months, I can promise you that in this case, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt — it’s another solid entry in a career full of them. Here’s hoping it brings Ruffins another step closer to household name status. Listen to the opening track, “Panama,” here.